Sept 1, 2016, Houston, Texas, USA
World Methodist Conference, Theme: ONE
Ecumenical Dinner – Keynote Address
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches
Honourable hosts and guests at this table,
Dear sisters and brothers in the Methodist family,
Let me begin by offering my gratitude for the invitation to be in your midst during the World Methodist Conference today. This day, Sept 1, has become a new moment in our ecumenical calendars in recent years as The Day of Creation. This year we have as World Council of Churches, together with the Ecumenical Patriarch and other ecumenical leaders and partners,issued a unique common ecumenical call to celebrate, to pray, and to care for God’s wonderful creation. This is a meaningful sign of our Christian unity, and offers me an entry to what I want to say about being One. To be One is about life, to be together; it is about finding new ways forward together; and it is about contributing to real hope.
Your theme for this meeting addresses a shared vision and realities of the ecumenical movement. This draws from a strong tradition of how Methodists and Methodist churches have contributed to make the call to unity concrete and shared by many, also outside your fellowship. I have myself been fascinated by your emphasis on mutual accountability as a shared attitude to one another as disciples of Christ. We cannot live as if we are alone. We are accountable in love to one another for the truth we carry and share. We are accountable to the whole world that God has created and all humanity carried in God’s prevenient grace. We are particularly accountable to those who are less privileged and most vulnerable, those who particularly need the word and the action of grace in this world. Christian faith is relational, or connectional, as you might say. To be one is to be accountable to God, who is the communion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The ecumenical movement has benefited greatly from your perspectives and commitments, and I am convinced it will continue to do so. Your theme and your meeting here can be a sign of hope for the whole ecumenical movement. And it is the relationship between unity and hope that I will draw your attention to tonight.
It is also in this perspective I bring you the greetings of the World Council of Churches, the fellowship of 348 member churches around the world, including most represented here. I wish to give special thanks to Rev. Dr Ivan Abrahams for his leadership of the World Methodist Council and his support of the WCC in his former positions as well as in the present calling you have. It is a privilege to have an opportunity to experience your common life together.
Unity in Life
“Today, the whole creation, the world and its people, live in the tension between the profoundest hope and the deepest despair.” So begins the Unity Statement adopted at the 10thWCC Assembly in Korea in November 2013. It is called “Unity in Life”. The quest for ecumenical commitment to unity must include a realistic and contextualized assessment of our contemporary experience. We live in a time of global demographic shifts in Christianity,challenging tasks of moral discernment, and increasingly complex and urgent socio-economic and political conditions around the world, affecting our lives as humanity and as churches.We see new initiatives for the visible unity of the churches, like the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete this year. We also see some signs of retreat from the agenda to be one, some tending to rather strengthening confessional and national or other identities.
The constitution of the WCC is very relevant: “The primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe”.
While we might fear what is worrying in change and instability, even disunity, we must remind ourselves that we are not called to be paralyzed or to promote an attitude of despair and hopelessness. “Let not your heart be afraid, believe in God and believe in me.” (John 14)This is one of the core messages Jesus gave his disciples before his departure from them. “Do not be afraid.” These are also the first words of the resurrected Christ. The prayer that we all may be one so the world may believe should be read in this framework of the Gospel of John. It is foremost a calling to be one in our faithful trust in Christ and in the knowledge that he is from God. This is our hope in God: that God has come near through the incarnation of Christ and that hope is present in the reality of the cross and the resurrection of Christ. The prayer in John 17 not only shows Christ praying that his community of disciples may be one in testament to relationship and love, but that in this oneness the gospel might more profoundly transform the world. If we were to consider the phrase in a slightly different way, ‘that they may be one that the world might have hope,’ how might our understanding of unity be deepened or changed? I therefore pose the question: Are we united in hope?
We are not called to be one so that the world may understand that Christians cannot disagree about anything. We are called to be one so that the world may have this faith that is the hope of the world. Thus, hope is a criterion for what it means to be one in the faith in Jesus Christ.
God sending the Son into the world is the ultimate gesture of love. The unity of the church, then, is a gift and calling that strengthens the impact of the gospel message. Evangelism is to share the good news for all.
I would also add, beyond what the WCC said in 2013, that the ecumenical movement hasarrived at a profound moment where new opportunities for being one are seen among us. The commitment of Pope Francis to serve the needs of the world together with all Christians as far as it is possible, has become a new inspiration to all of us. His emphasis on being pilgrims on our way forward as a sign of commitment to be one, is strongly reflected also in the present work of the WCC. Today we celebrate the Day of Creation, which has been endorsed by so many churches as a new calling to be one, caring for God’s creation and the future of our common home, given to us by God. There is more openness for cooperation and building relationships in the many parts of world Christianity. We have had meetings between the WCC and the World Evangelical Alliance recently, and next week I am invited to address the World Pentecostal Fellowship. I could make the list long. The WCC’s agenda to seek unity, justice and peace for all, also through dialogues with people of other faiths, is now a shared agenda of many.
We must also see how Christian unity can serve the wider humanity in very concrete ways. Last week I joined representatives of many of the churches in Nigeria as they gathered tolaunch together with Muslim leaders of that country a new inter-faith centre for peace and harmony in Kaduna. In my greetings I quoted from the famous text about our One-ness inThe letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4. There we are reminded that to be One in Christ is defined by the faith in the One God who is the Father of all, above all, and through all and in all.
All have the right to this hope; it is not a hope only for me, or only for some. As the World Council of Churches, we know (as the Busan Unity Statement says) that we must seek “gifts enabling the fellowship, under the Spirit’s guidance, to discern the will of God, to teach together and to live sacrificially, serving one another’s needs and the world’s needs.” One of those gifts we seek and cultivate in unity must be hope. This is how to live in unity and this is how to use unity to offer life-giving service in God’s world.
A pilgrimage of hope
The vision of pilgrimage defines the ecumenical movement at this time. We are journeying on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. This focus brings our attention to the many places in the world where there are divisions, discrimination, violence, disempowerment, persecution, and injustice. On this pilgrimage we must act. We must bring attention to these issues and events and we must do all within our power to right these wrongs, as Christians, as part of humanity.A pilgrimage of this kind becomes most effective when we are moving together, when we are strengthened in unity, when my perspectives are opened through yours, and when my efforts are met with yours. In committing ourselves to the qualities of God’s Kingdom, justice and peace, we should be equally attentive to the qualities of living in unity for this goal.
Can we be united in our hope for a better world for God’s children, for creation, if we do not acknowledge the gifts of others, if we seek to impose our answers and cease to listen, or if we devalue those with whom we do not agree? No, we cannot. When we commit to respond to the gospel message in mission and service, the measure of effectiveness is whether we bring with us hope: hope that darkness might become light, and hope that the unity of the church, of humanity and of creation will show us the great expanse of God’s love.
Before our last Central Committee meeting in June this year, focusing on our pilgrimage in changing landscapes, we prepared in different ways for that event in Trondheim, Norway. Trondheim is a pilgrimage site from medieval times, and the tradition and the pathways have been renewed the last decades. I am so proud of my Methodist friend and colleague, KnutRefsdal, the general secretary of the Christian Council of Norway. He literally walked the 560 km from Oslo to Trondheim the weeks before the event. He made it a pilgrimage of justice and peace, organizing a lot of conversations and meetings on his way to discuss how the churches can contribute to the qualities of tolerance, generosity, justice and peace among all people and faiths.
Challenges to Unity and Reason for Hope
Having reflected on our reasons for hope and how they are connected to our call to unity in Christ, let me briefly share with you some examples of how we can experience this challengein the ecumenical movement today.
As disciples of Christ in the world we have to acknowledge the full dignity of all human persons in our created being with all our differences. Being in fellowship is costly and challenging, but it is also imperative. We should not place the burden of our sometimes painful disagreements on the backs of the most vulnerable and sometimes stigmatized among us, denying them their hope of sharing fully in the fellowship.
The call to be one must reflect the values of the kingdom of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. How we continue to combat racism and bigotry is a measure of our commitment tounity. We must hold ourselves to an attitude of mutual accountability. There cannot be a unity in the Church that is not a real unity among us as human beings, all created in the image of God. This is a global issue, but we feel how significant it is that we together say this in this country these days.
Thirdly, the fact that we cannot, as Christians, gather around the same table to partake of the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table remains a scandal, as it prevents the full expression of what the Church is called to be in and for the world. Our Christian family is wounded by this reality.
One of my first professional ecumenical tasks 25 years ago was to be secretary of the Methodist-Lutheran dialogue in Norway, and it became for me a sign of why the ecumenical dialogues really can offer signs of hope. One of our challenges in dialogue was the understanding of the sacraments. A significant contribution was then offered from a recent study document from the international Methodist family, focusing on how God the Creatoroffers grace through creation, and therefore also in the means of grace in the elements of the sacrament. We were reminded how the Eucharist is the great thanksgiving for all of God’s grace from the very beginning until today. We celebrate it in anticipation of what is coming, as an expression of hope. I firmly believe that there are more ways forward in how the significance of the Eucharist can be a way to unite in our Christian hope.
You are gathering these days in the World Methodist Conference under the theme One: One God, One Faith, One People, One Mission. To be one means to unite in what is life giving: our faith and hope in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.